Instant Escapes: Cape Town, South Africa

Take the hassle out of your winter-sun citybreak with our easygoing guide

Jill Starley-Grainger
The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, 2017

Long lazy days sipping vintage wine or ambling through tropical gardens makes the Mother City a stellar choice for a seductive city break. And as you zip along comely coastal roads beneath blazing sun, you’ll spot penguins, whales and baboons as effortlessly as you might see pigeons or squirrels back home. Even scaling the city’s landmark mountain requires not a jot of energy. Leave your gym kit at home and get ready to kick back. By Jill Starley-Grainger

See & Do

Life-sized wooden leopards eyeball you as you wander among the gift stalls of the Watershed. Tacky or terrific gift? You decide. Or move on listen to the guitar-like kora – a gourd-shaped instrument played by buskers outside restaurants as diners chuck coins into hats. At the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (waterfront.co.za; (1) on map) - a sprawling patchwork of docks, shops, hotels and restaurants – ‘only in Africa’ moments crop up every few steps.

Dingy cells crammed with so many men, there was barely room to sit down, and sob-inducing tales of body-wracking days bashing rocks in a quarry - touring Mandela’s enforced home for 18 years is going to test your nerves, but at least you can get there easily enough aboard the Waterfront’s ferry. On the breezy half-hour boat ride to Robben Island (robben-island.org.za; £18; book ahead in peak season (3)), gaze back at the city, its white-sand beaches and rocky cliffs gleaming in the blazing sun, under the wide, flat peak of Table Mountain.

Whirring up the slopes of the mountain in a dizzying cable car (tablemountain.net; £15 return; (4)) gives you another perspective altogether – thousands of large houses spilling down the slopes towards the sea. Standing at the top, you get a sense of just how sprawling and diverse this 1,000-square-mile city is. The neighbourhoods on the seaside of the mountain scream gated-neighbourhood wealth, with their pristine white houses and perfectly manicured lawns, in stark contrast to the ramshackle inland townships you passed on the drive in from the airport. 

Standing next to massive King Proteas, you’ll feel as if you’ve landed in Jurassic Park. Looking like artichokes on steroids, these pink flowers cluster in Kirstenbosch Gardens (sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenbosch; £3.50; (5)), a tropical Eden on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. One hiking path down the mountain takes you right to the protea garden, via the back entrance – or take the easy route and hail a cab to the front. You’ll soon be sniffing fragrant gladiolis and watching iridescent sunbirds flitting through lawns turned white with hundreds of Cape Snowdrops.

Now for some urban flavour: most of Cape Town sprang up over the past century, but a pretty exception is the Bo-Kaap area (6), where you can stroll for half an hour past candy-coloured houses and sedate white mosques (if you’re nervous going it alone, guided tours abound) to glimpse how the working classes lived in the 18th century – and today. Originally a ghetto, it’s famous for its boxy, brick cottages, slathered in clay and painted all the colours of the rainbow: find them on sleepy Longmarket, Chiappini and Wale streets[JS1] .  

Nick makes the excellent point that the next three are out of town, and that doesn’t feel very ‘hassle-free’ (or, indeed, Cape Town). Can you please squish the drive and Boulder’s into one entry, and make the other something super laid-back and lovely in town[JS2] ?

Crashing waves and whales below you, jagged mountains and zebras above – you won’t know which way to look on the 90-minute drive down the Atlantic coast route (chapmanspeakdrive.co.za; toll £2.50) from Camps Bay (7), just east of the VA& Waterfront, to Cape Point. Hop out at the rocky precipice topped by the Cape of Good Hope lighthouse (capepoint.co.za; £8; (8)) for photos backed by endless, inky-blue ocean.  

At white-sand, rock-strewn Boulders Beach (sanparks.org; £4; (9), you can pad over boardwalks within touching distance of 1,000 wild penguins (don’t actually touch ― they nip!) Watch them waddle clumsily over the sand, then plunge into the bay, where they’re transformed into svelte, speedy swimmers. You can get here in an hour from the V&A Waterfront, or on your return route from Cape Point, simply switch to the other side of the peninsula and drive along False Bay for half an hour.

Thirsty? Lots of the zesty wines you’ve tried at bars across town come from Stellenbosch, the vineyard-clad valley an hour from the city centre. With 150 wineries sitting cheek-by-jowl here (wineroute.co.za/map), choosing where to have your first glug is the hardest part. Start with laid-back Spier (spier.co.za (11)), where you’ll sip three vintages for £3 overlooking the granite slopes of the Helderberg Mountains; then mosey on to nearby Neethlingshof (neethlingshof.co.za (12)), where tasters come with curious snacks ― the roast-beef-and-chocolate roll is spot on with their smoky Owl Post Pinotage.

EAT

Top chef, cheap eats

Pot Luck Club (tapas about £4)

Because: The more affordable sister restaurant to the award-winning Test Kitchen (see below), nosh on spicy fish tacos and tender beef tataki from the eclectic small-plates menu. Rising high over the up-and-coming Woodstock area, home to interiors shops and the popular weekly Neighbourgoods Market, it’s on the sixth floor of an old grain silo. Travel’s tip: Book the 6pm sunset seating to watch Table Mountain turn as pink your glass of South African rosé.

Silo Top Floor, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock; 00 2721 447 0804, thepotluckclub.co.za; (13)

Overwater gastropub

The Brass Bell (mains about £11)

Many of the following entries start with ‘This [type of venue] is [description]’ - can you switch up the openers a little bit and start with punchier details to tempt us there?

Because: Jutting out over the water in the seaside suburb of Kalk Bay, 20 minutes north of Boulders Beach, lounge on the lively terrace of this gastropub eating seafood platters in the sun while the kids splash in tidal pools near your feet. Travel’s tip: Bring that bottle of plonk you picked up in Stellenbosch. Corkage is only £2.

Main Road, Kalk Bay; 00 2721 788 5455, brassbell.co.za; (14)

Fab farm-to-fork

Babel (mains about £12)

Because: ‘Farm-to-table’ doesn’t get more literal then here, where the artichoke in your terrine and the tomatoes in your gazpacho came from the fruit and veg gardens just a few metres from your table at this airy whitewashed cowshed on a farm just outside Stellenbosch. Travel’s tip: Wear flat shoes. You’ll dodge tortoises and chickens on gravel paths en route to the restaurant.

Babylonstoren, R45, Simondium; 00 2721 863 3852, babylonstoren.com; (15)

A fine romance

Dash (mains about £14)

Because: In contrast to the city’s tendency towards large, bustling restaurants, this monochrome dining room, with leather chairs and marble fireplace, feels decidedly intimate, making it the spot for a dinner date. Tucked discreetly inside the Queen Victoria hotel in the V&A Waterfront, its dishes of pan-fried venison or vegetable terrine might come served on granite plates sprinkled with flowers or gold dust. Travel’s tip: Only a handful of tables have waterfront views, so request one when you book.

Portswood Close, Portswood Ridge, V&A Waterfront; 00 2721 418 1466, newmarkhotels.com; (16)

The hot ticket

The Test Kitchen (eight courses £70)

Because: Thanks to the adventurous but spot-on concoctions of chef Luke Dale-Roberts, you’ll tuck into the likes of liquorice-cured Wagyu biltong and pine-needle granita with G&T jelly. This chic eatery below the Pot Luck Club (see above), with exposed brick walls and leather banquettes, won Best in Africa at the 2016 World’s Best Restaurant awards. Travel’s tip: Set a reminder: bookings open on the first of each month for all dates that, month and are gone within hours.

The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock; 00 2721 447 2337, thetestkitchen.co.za; (17)

DRINK

Mountain-view terrace

Bascule

Because: Ice-cold beers in the sun taste even better as you look out over billionaire yachts of the V&A Waterfront towards Table Mountain. Later, head inside to the dark-wood bar to choose a nightcap from hundreds of whiskies. Travel’s tip: Forgot to advance-book for the whisky tastings (£20 for six pours)? If the bar isn’t busy, staff will create a bespoke ‘flight’ for you, with tasting notes provided (prices vary).

Cape Grace, West Quay Road, V&A Waterfront; basculebar.com; (18)

Blingy beach bar

Grand Cafe

Because: You’ll watch surfers ride the waves while drinking a passion fruit caipirinha with your feet in the sand, at this dead ringer for a St Tropez beach club. Travel’s tip: There’s virtually no parking. Walk 15 minutes from the V&A Waterfront or take a cab.

Granger Bay Road (off Beach Road), Granger Bay; grandafrica.com; (19)

Rum shack

Banana Jam Café

Because: Customers from all walks of life come to watch the rugby, listen to reggae bands and hang out in the leafy courtyard at this bohemian Caribbean shack-style bar near Kirstenbosch Gardens. Travel’s tip: Don’t miss happy hour, 5-6pm daily, for £1 rum cocktails. Yes, you read that right.

157 2nd Avenue, Kenilworth; bananajamcafe.co.za; (20)

STAY

The wine rooms

Jordan Winery Suites (Doubles from £110, B&B)

Because: Staying at a working winery has its rewards – including a free bottle of the estate’s own in your room. Lying in bed and gazing at vineyards and flitting hummingbirds makes this an idyllic Stellenbosch overnight if you’re winery-hopping. Travel’s tip: All hotel guests get a free tasting, but check in by 3.30pm (6pm weekends in peak season) to allow time to do it before the winery closes.

Stellenbosch Kloof Road, Vlottenberg, Stellenbosch; 00 2721 881 3048, jordanwines.com; (21)

Nightlife respite

Welgelegen Hotel (Doubles from £120, B&B)

Because: For a home-from-home feel just 15 minutes’ drive from the V&A Waterfront, check into this 13-room B&B, set in two adjoining Victorian houses. Each of the charming bedrooms has a unique touch, such as vintage family photos or a small wrought-iron terrace with Table Mountain views. Travel’s tip: It’s only a few minutes from the lively bars and restaurants of Kloof Street, but you’ll more likely be bothered by the creaky wooden floors. Either way, bring earplugs.

6 Stephen Street; 00 27 21 426 2373, welgelegen.co.za; (22)

B&B plus

TwentyTwo (Doubles from £155, B&B)

Because: It might be a four-room B&B in a quiet neighbourhood on the slopes of Table Mountain, but the owners act like five-star concierges, loaded with recommendations for restaurants, bars and activities. Zesty lime green and turquoise accents add a blast of colour to the otherwise serene interiors, and if you want the real city lowdown, grab a drink the lounge; the British male owners are sure to join you for a chinwag. Travel’s tip: Book through mrandmrssmith.com and they’ll price-match the cheapest rate and throw in two Table Mountain cable-car tickets.

22 Montrose Avenue, Oranjezicht; 00 2721 465 8882, cape22.com; (23)

Pool with a view

Sea Star Rocks (Doubles from £204, B&B)

Because: Rising high above the pretty beaches of Camps Bay, this three-suite hotel has all the looks of a Bond villain’s lair – white Modernist architecture with floor-to-ceiling paintings of exotic women, and mid-century circular chairs for plotting your Capetonian plans. As daylight starts to fade, hop into the infinity pool for a cooling dip, then dry off in the loungers as you take in sweeping views of the city’s shoreline. Travel’s tip: The multi-tiered design features lots of stairs, but no lifts, so avoid if you have difficulty walking.

26 Theresa Avenue, Camps Bay; 00 2782 080 9186, seastarrocks.co.za; (24)

Ship’s mate

Twelve Apostles (Doubles from £235, B&B)

Because: Looking like a vintage cruise liner plonked on land, this long, white coastal hotel perches on the slopes of the Twelve Apostles mountains. Many of the blue-tinged rooms feel suitably at-sea, too, with the ocean seemingly almost touching distance outside your window (in reality, it’s just over the road). Located near Camps Bay, en route to Cape Point, you might spot passing whales and dolphins over sundowners in the bar. Travel’s tip: Plan a movie night in. The private 16-seat cinema screens movie classics – for free, with popcorn included.

Victoria Road, Camps Bay; 00 2721 4379000; 12apostleshotel.com; (25)

Waterfront landmark

Cape Grace (Doubles from £380, B&B)

Because: This landmark hotel is a city hotspot, with a terrace bar packed with locals, and a sunny pool where families splash and play all day. And given its prime locale right in the heart of the V&A Waterfront, it makes an easy jumping-off point for sightseeing. The classic, understated rooms won’t win any design awards, but you’ll sleep like a dream on thick plus beds and wake up to views of Table Mountain or the yacht-filled harbour. Travel’s tip: Don’t hail that taxi! The hotel limos will take you anywhere within a 10km radius, for free.

West Quay Road, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront; 00 2721 410 7100, capegrace.com; (26)

Ask the local

Jomiro Eming is a competitive Latin dancer living in Hout Bay, Cape Town

Skip the big beaches and hunt down Cosy Bay in Oudekraal (Victoria Road (27)) — it’s as quaint, peaceful and untouched as it sounds. For the inner-city experience, ditch Long Street, where everybody goes, and wander the Waterkant neighbourhood around happy hour (4-6pm). The crowd is trendy, young and classy — start at Cafe Manhattan (manhattan.co.za (28)). Or do afternoon tea in Little Chelsea, the four-block village around Wolfe Street where it looks like your gran was in charge of decorating: try Four and Twenty bakery (fourandtwentycafe.co.za; around £6 (29)). PS: Table Mountain is great, but the view from Signal Hill’s viewing point is just as good — and it’s far less busy (30).

GET ME THERE

Go independent

BA (0844 493 0787, ba.com) flies non-stop year-round from Heathrow to Cape Town from £1,023 return, and from Gatwick from £1,088 return. Thomas Cook (0800 916 0652, thomascookairlines.com) flies non-stop in peak season (Dec to Mar) from Gatwick to Cape Town, from £600 return.

Go packaged

BA Holidays (0844 493 0763, ba.com/holidays) has a seven-day fly-drive in Cape Town from £755pp, including flights from Gatwick. Hayes and Jarvis (01293 762415, hayesandjarvis.co.uk) has a seven-day Cape, Whales and Winelands trip from £1,359pp, B&B, including flights from London, three- and four-star hotels in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Hermanus, and car hire.

Get around

Although it is generally safe to walk around the V&A Waterfront most of the time, and by day in a few other select areas (such Bo-Kaap or the Central Business District), for the rest of the city it’s advisable to either pre-book taxis or to drive — and with cabs costing 50p a kilometre, most people opt to hire a car. Hertz (020 7026 0077, hertz.co.uk) has seven days’ car hire from Cape Town International Airport from £85, and Avis (0808 284 0014, avis.co.uk) has seven days from £93.

Further information

For more information, see capetown.travel and uk.southafrica.net.

ENDS

MARGIN NOTES

ROBBEN ISLAND - Take binoculars. As the ferry comes into dock, you can sometimes spot penguins along the shores here.

BO-KAAP - To get a taste of the unique Bo-Kaap culture, join a cooking tour (bokaapcookingtour.co.za; £40) in the home of a native. You’ll learn to prepare the popular Cape Malay curry, which originated here.

BO-KAAP - Don’t be alarmed if you hear a loud bang at lunch. The Noon Gun sits on Signal Hill, just above Bo-Kaap, and has been used for 200 years to announce the time at midday.

CAPE POINT - Keep any food – even small snacks – in the boot as you near Cape Point. The area’s baboons are aggressive thieves and will take any measure to snatch that sarnie off your dashboard or from your backpack.

BOULDERS BEACH - Get very up close and personal with the penguins by paddling with them. As you leave the Boulders Beach boardwalk, turn left and walk a few steps to access the adjacent beach cove, where a handful of birds tend to hang out every day.

STELLENBOSCH - Let someone else do the driving while you wine-taste by taking the hop-on, hop-off Hopper bus (vinehopper.co.za; £16/day) or try a small-group tour with Camino (caminotours.co.za; £50pp, including tastings).